The education of a Hopkins man

Changes: In today's graduating class is a young man who will go on to a job in the arts. He thought he was going to be a scientist.

May 27, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The Jason Altman who picks up his diploma today at Johns Hopkins University is not the same young man who arrived in Baltimore four years ago. So much has happened since then, so much to change him from a potential scientist to an artist with a job waiting for him in New York City.

"I came in thinking, calculus," says Altman, slapping one hand into the other. "It didn't take me long in calculus to know that wasn't it."

He had considered a science major, perhaps pre-med. Much of that faded as his mother waged a losing battle against breast cancer. There were just too many trips to hospitals to consider a career in medicine. Still, he threw himself into the college experience.

"I was a mess. I joined any club that was open to me," he says. He was the same way in high school in Westbury, Long Island. "I didn't like to be home because home was where my mom was sick and I didn't want to be there. I was all over the map. I guess I was just used to keeping myself busy so you don't have to think about anything."

He is earnest and sincere when he talks about these matters. He is calm. It's easy to see how administrators took to him, helped him in his time of need.

His mother, Stephanie, died his freshman year. He remembers going to the financial aid office to tell everyone goodbye. He knew there was no way he could stay at a private college.

"I didn't have a dime to my name. I didn't have anything," he says. "I really thought it was over. I thought I was going to community college, whatever."

He didn't know his mother had already talked to the office before she died. She called the summer before he enrolled and told school officials her cancer was no longer in remission. She wanted to know if the school could do anything to ensure her son's future at Hopkins.

"She was very worried and she was even thinking about not having him come to Hopkins," says Ellen Frishberg, director of student financial services.

Frishberg and others assured her they would take care of Jason Altman. They told him the same thing when he came in that day worried, distressed, afraid.

"They said, `You're here. You belong here. You're part of the community. Don't worry about it,' " he says. "I was relieved first of all. I was in shock. I don't know. It was just really good to feel that this place that helped me become who I am cared enough to make that investment in me."

Around campus people kept an eye on him during that vulnerable time. In a sense he had become an orphan. His parents divorced when he was young. His mother, a special education teacher, had raised him and his younger brother, Brian. When she died, a community of support opened for her son. Still, there were moments when he felt utterly alone.

Grief has a way of sneaking up on you, catching you unawares. That's what happened to Altman.

"It wasn't until sophomore year that it all hit me. My grades went bad," he says, remembering when his life seemed to unravel. "I didn't really get it. I didn't understand. I'd be studying in the library and then I'd look up and I'd be crying and I didn't know why."

With help, he overcame that time. He became a peer counselor and joined Hillel, a group concerned with the campus life of Jewish students. Having put science behind him, he tried creative writing and literature courses. He joined the Buttered Nibblets, an improv comedy troupe. The performances gave him another community.

On stage he found himself reveling in the magic of performance. It was a perfect place. One show at Shriver Hall stands out in his mind. Every routine seemed to click. The Nibblets could do no wrong.

"Just to hear 1,000, 1,200 people laugh at what we did is really one of the greatest feelings," he says. "When you're on, you feel like you're on top of the world. But when you're off, it's painful."

Last year he made a pest of himself and persuaded Miramax studios in New York City to give him an internship. It wasn't a glorified job. He read scripts, helped around the office, got a taste of the movie world.

The people in New York liked him enough to offer him a job. He turned them down. He knew he had to graduate. Too much had happened, too many people had stepped forward to lend him a hand.

He'll think about them today when he picks up his diploma on the school's upper quad. His brother will be in the audience, along with his grandparents and some relatives from Toronto. It will be a moment of joy and sadness, he says. His four years at Hopkins will be over. Some things he expected to happen; others he did not. All helped change him.

"Hell, yeah. I don't even know if I'd know myself four years ago," he says. "I'm happy with who I am now, what choices I've made, what experiences I've had."

In a way, life seemed to work out for him. He found himself.

"I really kind of forged my identity around the arts," he says. "It's weird. It's like my interests, my hobbies, everything kind of collided for me."

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